Self-Drive Safari Botswana

Botswana Self-Drive Safari
Botswana Self-Drive Safari

A self-drive safari is one of the best ways to explore Botswana. See below for planning tips, maps, itineraries, car rental and more.

Botswana Self-Drive Safari Routes Map

Camping at Elephant Sands*
Camping at Elephant Sands*

A self-drive safari in Botswana with your own 4×4 is one of the best ways to explore the country.

A self-drive safari in Botswana involves driving between parks, camping within them and going on game drives from the campsite. Often an early game drive at first light, return to camp for a late breakfast, relax and read some books, before heading out again after the heat of the day has passed. Return at dark for a braai (barbecue). To get a full idea of what to expect on a self-drive safari, read the travel adventure book I wrote, No Footprints in the Night: On Safari in Botswana*.

How to Organise a Self-Drive Safari in Botswana

Tips for how to Organise a Self-Drive Safari in Botswana

  • Get the Tracks4Africa Botswana* road map.
  • Don’t plan to drive too far in one day – you shouldn’t drive in the dark, some rental companies enforce a speed limit of 100 km/hr on the main roads, and on thick sand you might only drive at 15 km/hr.
  • Spend an extra day between long periods in the wilderness to allow for delays, detours or car problems.
  • Some key campsites such as Savuti and the popular Moremi campsites do get full so book these far in advance.
  • It’s best to book all national park campsites and pay park fees in advance
  • The parks are generally busier during South African holidays while Khutse Game Reserve gets busy on weekends.
  • You’ll have down time in the middle of the day, find the best books to read while in Botswana.
  • If you want to find out what it’s really like on safari in Botswana, read my book*.

Organising a Self-Drive Safari in Botswana

On a self-drive safari in Botswana, the most important things to organise in advance are your vehicle and campsite bookings within the National Parks:

To decide which campsites you need to book you first need to decide how long you want to go for, when you want to go, where you want to go and plan your itinerary. The Tracks4Africa Botswana Map* is the best road map of Botswana and an essential planning guide. It shows all the roads and tracks clearly, along with distances, driving times and helpful annotations.

Below we suggest three itineraries for great self-drive safaris, exploring the north, the dry south and the central sections of Botswana. We also give tips about safety in Botswana and where to find supplies. For more specific details on places in Botswana, visit our individual articles:

Or, read an overview of national parks in Botswana, a guide to camping in Botswana (including fees, locations and how to book), our 45-day road trip through Botswana or what gear to bring on a Botswanan Safari. (coming soon)

Best time of year to Self-Drive in Botswana

Hippo in Botswana

The rainy season (or green season) in Botswana begins in November or December and ends around March. The months of highest rainfall are January and February. During these months tracks in some of the parks can get flooded and/or very muddy. However, it’s low season so there are fewer other people, the vegetation is green with life and it’s the best time in Botswana for bird watching. Because of the difficulty driving, if it’s your first time self-driving in Botswana then the rainy season isn’t the best time of year to visit.

The dry season begins in April or May and ends around November. As the dry season progresses, the country gets drier and drier. Vegetation shrivels, waterholes dry up and the animals flock to the remaining permanent sources of water – the Okavango Delta and Chobe Riverfront in particular. Additionally, from May to early November it hardly ever rains and the tracks will be dry and easiest to drive. This makes the dry season the best time of year to Self-Drive in Botswana.

Shoulder season – from March to May and October/November – can be a great time as there are still fewer people yet the tracks are normally decent and there are plenty of animals. Especially in the desert parks the beginning of the dry season is when the animals flock to the pans and waterholes which retain their water for a while longer before finally drying out.

Botswana Overlanding Book

I captured our many adventures in a travel book, check it out on Amazon*.

South Africa was kicking us out so we had to make a plan. ‘What about Botswana?’ A few days before we overstayed our visas, we hit the road in our trusty Defender and sped north from Cape Town.

Renting a 4×4 Car for a Self-Drive Safari in Botswana

We drove around Botswana in our dark-blue Land Rover Defender 110 TD5 from 2002. If you rent a vehicle in Botswana you probably won’t get a Defender because rumour has it they have a tendency to break down (not true – our car only set on fire like one time since we got it). You have to be at least 22 years old to rent a vehicle in Botswana.

In Botswana Britz specialises in equipped 4×4 vehicles specially designed for tourists interested in self-drive safaris. You can rent Britz cars through AutoEurope* and pick exactly what you want with your car.

For example, you can pay a bit extra if you want your rental to include border crossings or return the car to a different drop-off location. If you just want to drive one way from Maun to Kasane the latter might be something to consider.

You can save only a small amount by renting an unequipped car, but it means you have to bring all your own camping gear and it will not be as comfortable or fun as a rooftop tent so I don’t think it’s worth it. An equipped Toyota Hilux is the most common car rented out for a self-drive safari in Botswana.

What does an equipped 4×4 come with?

An equipped 4×4 designed for a self-drive safari normally comes as standard with a rooftop tent with bedding, a long-range fuel tank (of roughly 80-120 litres), a fridge, a camping stove with a large gas cylinder, a table, chairs and pots and pans for cooking. The most useful extras you might want to consider are a water canister, fuel canisters, a satellite phone and an extra rooftop tent if you’re more than 2 people.

Our rooftop water canister of 40 litres was invaluable everywhere in Botswana and we used it as well as our inbuilt water tank during our longer drives through the wilderness areas. Regarding how much diesel you might need on a self-drive safari in Botswana, the longest distance we went between fuel stations was 976 km. This was between Maun and Kasane and most of it was on sand so our fuel efficiency was about 20% lower than on tarred roads (8 versus 10 km per litre). We used 114 litres of diesel on this section, but we carried 165 litres, our full capacity. Apart from our normal tank (75 litres) we had two 20-litre jerry cans on the roof and two 25-litre jerry cans in our boot.

Camping in Mabuasehube, Botswana with all the gear for a self-drive safari
Camping in Mabuasehube

Vehicle Gear needed for a self-drive safari around Botswana in your own 4×4

If you drive around Botswana in a car you own yourself, make sure you have the following items:

  • Seed net/grill
  • Two spare tires
  • Puncture repair kit
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Sand tracks
  • Spade/shovel
  • High-lift jack
  • Kinetic strap/rope
  • Compressor
  • Tire pressure gauge
  • Car tools and spares
  • Jerry Cans
  • Water tank

Instead of expensive sand tracks, we bought two floormats for R80 each from Builders. Placed beneath the tires they fulfil the same function, providing a grippy surface instead of sand. Even more important than sand tracks, reduce your tire pressure further and you might not need them. However, rigid sand tracks are obviously better at bridging gaps and are more effective in thick mud.

A seed grill is very important when driving on safari in Botswana as it prevents grasses and seeds from getting into your radiator. However, you should still check your radiator once a day to remove any grass stalks that have slipped through the net. You should also check your exhaust pipes for seeds or grass that have got caught and could heat up and start a fire. Be careful when removing anything not to burn yourself.

Our longest route between fuel stations was from Maun to Kasane through the national parks. We drove 976 km and used 114 litres of diesel (no trailer), though we had filled up to our maximum capacity of 165 litres which included our tank and four jerry cans. We had a built-in water tank of 40 litres and a rooftop tank of another 40 litres. Additionally, we had a couple of 5-litre bottles in the boot for convenience.

Do you need a satellite phone for a self-drive safari in Botswana?

We didn’t take a satellite phone with us on our trip but we did think about it. In the end they seemed very expensive to buy and we ended in a different location to where we started so it wasn’t convenient to hire one. If you rent a car with Britz* the satellite phones are relatively cheap as an add-on and would give you peace of mind. I guess Britz has an interest in you not being stuck for days in the wilderness.

A fully-equipped Landrover Defender ready for a self-drive safari through Botswana
Jerry cans (2x20l), water tank (40l), high-lift jack and tent on the roof. One wheel on the back, one wheel in the boot, an inbuilt water tank (40l), jerry cans in the boot (2x25l), a normal fuel tank of 75l and an ammo box full of car tools and spares inside.

Mobile Phone Coverage in Botswana

We got a Mascom SIM card as soon as we entered Botswana and it was definitely worth it during our self-drive safari. Although most of the parks do not have any coverage at all, the surrounding villages and towns tend to have a blob of signal (compare coverage of the three Botswanan phone networks – Mascom, Orange or Bemobile).

The lodges in Maun and Kasane have ok WiFi, as do some lodges elsewhere, but this can never be fully relied upon, and mobile reception is much more widespread than WiFi. For safety reasons we sent our entire road trip schedule to our parents, including driving routes and the places we were staying. We also marked on exactly where and when we would have phone signal. We told them if they didn’t receive a message from us within two days of our expected arrival in phone signal, they should start to worry.

Emergency Phone Numbers

We gave our parents the phone numbers of all the lodges we were staying. Additionally we provided these numbers:

  • Emergency Assist: +267 390 4537
  • DWNP: +267 397 1405
  • British High Commission: +267 395 2841
  • Netherlands Honorary Consulate: +27 124 254 500 / +267 7163 1563

4×4 Car Rental Locations in Botswana

In Botswana the two main places you can rent an equipped 4×4 from are Maun and Kasane. You can also find them in Gaborone, and Gaborone is also the place to rent normal i.e. not 4×4 vehicles.

  • Britz* is a big international car rental company renting many unequipped or fully equipped 4x4s in Kasane and Maun.
  • Bushlore Africa rent both unequipped and fully equipped 4×4 Toyotas in southern Africa, including Kasane and Maun.
  • Chobe4x4 are based in Kasane and rent fully equipped Toyota Landcruisers.
  • 4×4 Hire (part of DiscoverAfrica) rent different types of vehicles throughout Africa, including pick-up and drop-off in Kasane and Maun.
  • Temba 4×4 Hire rent fully equipped 4×4 Toyotas in Kasane and Maun.
  • Tawana Self-Drive are based in Kasane and rent fully equipped 4×4 Toyotas in Kasane, Maun, Gaborone, Namibia or SA.

Botswana Self-Drive Itineraries

Self-Drive RouteDistanceDuration
Maun to Kasane600 – 1200 km5 – 12 days
Central Kalahari and the Salt Pans1700 – 2300 km8 – 14 days
Kalahari Desert Exploration3000 – 4000 km12 – 20 days
Three self-driving safari routes to explore Botswana

We took a 45-day road trip from South Africa around Botswana, and below are three selected itineraries altered from that route for a great self-drive safari experience. We planned our route using the Tracks4Africa Botswana Map* and booked all our campsites through Botswana Footprints. For more information about the specific parks we visited click on the links, read an overview of Botswana National Parks or for more about camping spots and how to book, read our post on Camping in Botswana.

Maun to Kasane Self-Drive Route

Distance600 – 1200 km
Days5 – 12 Days
Start/EndMaun/Kasane
Best TimeMay – November
VibeRivers & Elephants
Elephants in Moremi National Park

The sandy route from Maun through Moremi, Khwai, Savuti and Chobe Riverfront to Kasane is the most classic self-drive itinerary in Botswana.

A suggested self-drive itinerary is shown in the table below, modified from our route. We drove 976 km and used 114 litres of diesel between the last fuel station in Maun and the next fuel station in Kasane. In Maun we filled to our capacity of 165 litres (75-litre fuel tank, 2×20 litre and 2×25 litre jerry cans). If you rent a fully-equipped 4×4 from Britz* your vehicle will normally come with a long-range fuel tank (giving you roughly 105 litres) and you can rent jerry cans for an extra fee. You can also rent vehicles one way from Maun to Kasane and add on extras like a satellite phone.

The most direct route between Maun and Kasane is 395 km but this involves no detours to campsites and no game drives. You’ll want to spend at least five days along this route and preferably more, to stay at least one night within Moremi, Khwai, Savuti and Chobe Riverfront and be able to go on game drives within each park.

Road conditions on the Maun to Kasane Route

Driving wet and muddy tracks on a safari in Moremi, Botswana
Wet and muddy roads in Moremi
Driving sandy roads in Moremi
Sandy roads in Moremi

The tracks in Moremi can become flooded and impassable in the rainy season, from December to March. Sometimes the bridges are damaged – these lead to Third Bridge Campsite – and this campsite can be cut off. The bridge called Third Bridge is on the direct route between Third Bridge Campsite and Xakanaxa Lagoon area. This bridge in particular is sometimes broken so to drive between the two areas you must go via South Gate. The direct route from Xakanaxa to Khwai North Gate can also often be flooded or very muddy in rainy season, so again you may have to travel via South Gate. If you are scared of water crossings, stay in Xakanaxa rather than Third Bridge.

In Khwai the tracks near the river may be wet, muddy or overgrown. The drivable routes change every year so you’ll just have to see as you go. The tracks to the campsite are always fine.

Sandy section north of Savuti, before Kachikau village
Sandy section north of Savuti, before Kachikau village

The way through Savuti is very sandy – we found it much sandier than anywhere in the southern deserts. The worst bit of sand in Botswana is along the cutline north of Savuti on the way to where the tar starts in Kachikau village. It’s bad here because not only is the road very sandy, but it’s undulating too so you have to power uphill through the thick sand. With a decent car you’ll be fine. With a car lacking in power and pulling a trailer you may find yourself stuck. Luckily the route is not too remote and another vehicle should be along to help you.

The rocky route down to the river in Chobe while on a self drive safari in Botswana
The rocky route down to the river in Chobe
Nice track by the water's edge in Chobe
Nice track by the water’s edge in Chobe

In Chobe Riverfront the tracks are all ok and if they’re not you can always turn around. The routes by the river are completely flooded in the rainy season but the tracks higher up on the riverbanks are always fine and it’s never a problem to reach the campsite.

Suggested Itinerary for Maun to Kasane Route

DayWhereTar/kmSand/kmCampsiteCost1
0Maun
1Moremi50120Third Bridge550
2Moremi0100Third Bridge550
3Khwai0140Magotho*350
4Khwai030Magotho*350
5Savuti0165Savuti560
6Savuti070Savuti560
7Kavimba20100Mwandi View*200
8Chobe Rivefront3090Ihaha270
9Kasane550Chobe Safari Lodge*110
1Cost is in Pula, per person per night for international guests

Approximate costs for this itinerary for two people with one vehicle work out at about $860/1230 for SADC/international excluding vehicle hire, food and small extras. The three main costs are $390/680 for campsites, $320/400 for park fees and roughly $150 for fuel.

To make this itinerary shorter you could miss out a night in Moremi and/or Khwai and drive straight from Savuti to Chobe. If you have extra time, spend an extra night or two in Moremi, add on two nights in Linyanti and spend an extra night in Chobe Riverfront.

Maun

Mokoro trip from Maun
Mokoro trip from Maun

Stock up everything you need for a week or two in the wilderness here in Maun. Take at least 150 litres of diesel and more if you plan on spending much over one week on this self-drive route. Make sure your vehicle is in good condition – check fluids and listen for any odd sounds when driving (bad sounds are often the first sign that something is wrong). You also need enough drinking water. We carried almost 100 litres of water, though the ablution facilities do have water which you can boil to drink if needed. If you have a spare day in Maun, take a mokoro tour on the delta* – these often include a guided walking safari on a remote island – a good way to exercise before a lot of driving. It’s easiest to ask about tours and book in the lodge you’re staying at.

Once you’re ready, it’s time to set off on a safari to remember.

Moremi

Elephants in Moremi, Botswana while driving on a safari
Impala in Moremi

It’s almost 100 km from Maun to Moremi South Gate with the last 50 km on good tracks. The drive might take about two hours, depending on how many animals you see as you approach the Game Reserve. There are four campsites with the park – Third Bridge, Xakanaxa, Khwai North Gate and South Gate. Third Bridge and Xakanaxa are at the far end of Moremi Tongue, next to the delta, while Khwai North Gate borders the Khwai River and South Gate is next to the South Gate and the least wild campsite in the park.

I’d recommend spending at least two nights in Moremi, ideally at either Third Bridge or Xakanaxa Campsites on the tip of Moremi tongue (these campsites do fill up so book far in advance). In the rainy season Third Bridge may be inaccessible, in which case you can find a site at another campsite within the park or in Khwai Community Concession instead. If you are scared of water crossings, stay in Xakanaxa rather than Third Bridge.

Khwai North Gate campsite is also a fine choice within the park, near the Khwai River with many animals, though it feels slightly less remote than the other two. If you have more time, stay at Third Bridge and Xakanaxa and Khwai to experience the different parts of the park.

Khwai Community Concession

Decent tracks in Khwai (plus wild dogs)
Decent tracks in Khwai (plus wild dogs)
Watching the river at Magotho Campsite, an overnight stop on a self-driving safari route through Botswana
Watching the river at Magotho Campsite
An elephant crossing the river in Khwai
An elephant crossing the river

Khwai Community Concession is an area protected and managed by the local community. It’s between Moremi and Savuti and has at least as much wildlife as within the official parks so it’s worth spending at least two nights in Khwai Community. The Magotho campsite has a lovely position by the river and you could sit here for days watching the comings and goings on, in and through the water. Elephants in particular wander through the campsite. Khwai Safari Grounds and Mbudi Campsite are great alternative campsites to Magotho.

Savuti & Linyanti

Savuti and Linyanti are two areas of Chobe National Park (Chobe Riverfront is the other, most visited one). There are only three campsites in Chobe National Park – one in each area i.e. Savuti Campsite in Savuti, Linyanti Campsite in Linyanti and Ihaha Campsite in Chobe Riverfront. Due to the low number of campsites, you should book far in advance to guarantee a spot.

Watching elephants in Savuti on a self-drive road trip in Botswana
Young male lion in savuti

It’s about 75 km from Khwai north to Savuti Campsite. Outside of the dry season you have to drive the Sand Ridge Road, rather than the Marsh Road which gets very wet. The Sand Ridge road is very sandy and the going slow, so allow four or five hours from Khwai to Savuti Campsite. It’s a further 40 km of slow sandy driving to Linyanti Marsh and the campsite there. In the wet season the direct route NW from Savuti to Linyanti is often too muddy to drive. Instead, you have to take the long way around, 70 km via Ghoha North Gate and then along the cutline to Linyanti Gate.

It’s worth spending at least two nights in Savuti since you’ve come so far to get here. If visiting Linyanti as well, spend two nights at each campsite to make the most of your time in the wilderness.

Chobe Riverfront

Buffalo in Botswana as seen on a self-drive safari
Lioness by the water in Chobe National Park

It’s 130 km (45 km on tar and 85 km on sandy tracks) from Savuti Campsite to Ihaha campsite, the only campsite in Chobe Riverfront. We stayed at Mwandi View Campsite* in between for several reasons: so we could have a morning game drive in Savuti before setting off, to avoid driving too far in one day, to allow for delays and getting stuck on the sandy roads, and to have a short break from the wilderness. Another good option near Mwandi View is Muchenje Campsite & Cottages*.

Camping at Ihaha Campsite is a great option as the sites overlook the river and you avoid having to deal with the Chobe Decongestion Strategy. This rule means that in busy times, self-drivers cannot enter the park before 9 am or after 2:30 pm unless you’re staying at the campsite. We camped at Ihaha for one night and felt we saw most of the park, but staying for two or three nights would allow more animal sightings.

Kasane

Elephant in the river in Chobe, Botswana
An elephant in the water
Sunset from a River Cruise in Chobe
Sunset from a River Cruise

Kasane is just next to Chobe and could be used as a base to explore the park if Ihaha is fully booked. Kasane has fuel and many shops, the first place since Maun, so you can restock on everything here. We stayed in the campsite at Chobe Safari Lodge* and also organised a river cruise with them, an experience you shouldn’t miss. You can check online to get an idea of river cruises available*, but it’s easy and probably cheaper to book directly at a lodge.

If you want to return to Maun, it’s 600 km on the tar via Nata. Nice places to stop overnight on the way include Elephant Sands*, Nata Lodge* or Planet Baobab*.

Central Kalahari and the Salt Pans Self-Drive Route

Distance1700 – 2300 km
Days8 – 14 Days
Start/EndMaun
Best TimeFebruary – May
VibeSunsets & Zebras
Giraffe and sunset in Nxai Pan National Park

The wild route from Maun through Central Kalahari Game Reserve, across the Salt Pans to Kubu Island, through Makgadikgadi Pans and Nxai Pan National Parks includes a mix of landscapes, wide open spaces, amazing light and stars on a diverse self-drive safari through Botswana.

As above, this route starts in Maun where you should prepare everything to be self-sufficient for the next week or two. Get diesel in Maun (the fuel station in Sehithwa is less reliable) and fill up on water and food. None of the campsites in Central Kalahari have water, so bring all the water you need plus more. We carried almost 100 litres of water and never came close to running out, but the extra is needed in case you get stuck. After the Central Kalahari, you can refuel in Rakops and restock on food and fuel in Letlhakane. Nata also has both food and fuel while Gweta doesn’t have much of either.

On this self-drive route, the longest section between fuel is from Maun to Rakops, where you might drive 700 to 1000 km, mainly through sand. Our car (Defender 110 TD5) averaged about 8 km per litre through sand. Assuming your car is similar you should carry at least 100 litres if you’re not driving too far in the reserve, and up to 150 km if you plan to drive a lot. Your fuel efficiency will be a lot lower if you’re pulling a trailer.

Road conditions on the Central Kalahari and the Salt Pans Route

The tracks through the Central Kalahari can be very muddy in the wet season with the black sticky type of mud that really glues you down. This occurs on the main loop where you drive through pans and former river channels, especially near Deception Valley itself. On the tracks through the sand dunes away from this loop, the roads are just sandy all year round.

track to Kubu Island while self-driving through Botswana
Track to Kubu
Tracks to Kubu Island across the pans
You can’t reach Kubu Island if it’s wet

The Botswanan Salt Pans fill with water in the rainy season, lasting between December and March/April. Never drive on the pans when they are wet as the mud will suck you in and you might never get free. Entire cars have been lost here. Even if the pans look dry, unless you see recent tire tracks then get out and walk on them to check, but remember that your car is a lot heavier than you.

Failing to reach Baines Baobabs in Nxai Pans because of flooding, while driving on a self-drive safari through Botswana
Failing to reach Baines Baobabs in Nxai Pans

When the water is very high you won’t be able to reach Kubu Island. If this is the case you’ll have to drive around the edge of the pans instead of across via the Island. Baines Baobabs in Nxai Pans may also be out of reach, though the campsite at South Camp should always be accessible. Similarly, most of the roads within Makgadikgadi remain just sandy rather than muddy and wet.

Suggested Itinerary for Central Kalahari and the Salt Pans Route

DayWhereTar/kmSand/kmCampsiteCost1
0Maun
1CKGR17090Motopi350
2CKGR0170Sunday Pan350
3CKGR075Kori30
4CKGR0160Piper Pan350
5Rakops15175Rakops River Lodge*130
6Kubu Island17050Kubu Island240
7Gweta70100Planet Baobab110
8Makgadikgadi Pans15110Tree Island40
9Nxai Pan10190Nxai Pan South400
10Maun150110Crocodile Camp*220
1Cost is in Pula, per person per night for international guests

Approximate costs for this itinerary for two people with one vehicle work out at about $820/950 for SADC/international excluding vehicle hire, food and small extras. The three main costs are $290/360 for campsites, $230/290 for park fees and roughly $300 for fuel.

To make the itinerary shorter you could miss out Kubu Island (though this is a really unique place). If you have more time, spend an extra night in each of Makgadikgadi and Nxai National Parks and add on more time in the Central Kalahari.

Central Kalahari

From Maun it’s 170 km drive southwest on the A3 to the vet fence and checkpoint. Note you can’t bring meat or eggs south through this checkpoint. The turn-off to Central Kalahari is just south of the fence along a sandy track due east. After 40 km you’ll reach the entrance to the park. It’s another 32 km east along the park boundary before the track south through the dunes to Motopi campsite (15 km) and the central loop of the park (55 km). Since it’s already 170 km on tar (almost 2 hours) and 90 km through sand (maybe four hours) to Motopi campsite it’s worth staying here rather than trying to push on. The waterhole at Motopi is nice and it’s a pleasant, extremely remote area.

At (dry) Motopi Waterhole in CKGR
At (dry) Motopi Waterhole
In Deception Valley  on a self-drive safari through Botswana
In Deception Valley

From Motopi campsite it’s 40 km to the main loop. You then have a choice of whether to drive anticlockwise or clockwise. The entire loop is 230 km, which would be a fairly quick two day’s drive. There’s also a cutline heading directly east-west through the centre of the loop. You won’t see many animals here but it’s a quick way from one side of the loop to the other.

One of the most popular areas, with both self-drivers and animals, is the area of Deception Valley on the eastern side of the loop. It’s much busier with people than elsewhere, but it’s worth spending a couple of nights here for the chance of seeing cheetahs, lions and wild dogs. Apart from the campsites around the loop, Pipers Pan is a great excursion into a remoter area of the Kalahari. While in the park read Cry of the Kalahari*, a book about the brown hyenas and lions of Deception Valley.

Springbok in central kalahari

CKGR to Kubu Island

Leave the park to the east via Matswere gate and to Rakops. From the Deception Valley area it’s about 80 km so a few hours’ drive. Either stop off at Rakops River Lodge* or if you left the park early you can continue directly to Kubu Island. It’s 170 km on the tar and 50 km on fairly decent sand tracks to Kubu from Rakops, so should take 3.5-5 hours. There’s fuel in Rakops but no supermarkets – there are both in Letlhakane just south of the turnoff to Kubu.

Walking around Kubu Island
Walking around Kubu Island
Sunset at Kubu Island, a stop on a self-drvie safari through Botswana
Sunset at Kubu Island

From the south to Kubu Island the tracks are sandy but good and the route is quite clear. The campsite has a good website and they can inform you about the road condition before you set off. Make sure to arrive in time to explore a little before sunset. You can walk up the nearby hills and over the rocks, have a braai and watch the sky change colour. Unless you want a longer break there’s no need to spend more than one night at Kubu as there’s not much to do nearby and there aren’t any animals (apart from horses and donkeys).

Kubu Island to Makgadikgadi

Heading north from Kubu the tracks can be a bit obscured and overgrown and sometimes multiple tracks branch off and you don’t know which one to take. The Tracks4Africa Botswana* map is useful, as is a phone app such as Maps.Me. Keep heading north, and avoid the track furthest east on the edge of the pan as this can be wet and muddy and you might run into trouble here. The parallel route slightly west and away from the pan is slightly sandy but no problem.

Sign to the eastern entrance of Makgadikgadi Pans
Sign to the eastern entrance of Makgadikgadi Pans

After 100 km you’ll reach the main tarred road across the top of the Salt Pans. This is the only bad tarred road in Botswana – in places almost washed away entirely – drive slowly to avoid the potholes. If you need fuel or food, or want to visit Nata Bird Sanctuary, head 20 km right to Nata. Otherwise, turn left towards Gweta. There’s not much in Gweta itself (the fuel here is very unreliable) but Planet Baobab* is a cool place to camp among large baobab trees. About 10 km west of Gweta is a signed track leading off to the eastern entrance to Makgadikgadi Pans.

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park

Zebra and Pans in eastern Makgadikgadi
Pans in eastern Makgadikgadi
Tree Island Campsite, a stop on a self-drive safari through Botswana
Tree Island Campsite

This National Park can be divided into two areas: the large expanse of the eastern section with few tracks, lots of pans and sand, and the Boteti River section on the western edge of the park. Makgadikgadi Pans is famous for the zebra migration, as the animals move from the pans where they live in the wet season to the permanent Boteti River where they find water in the dry season. It’s not just zebra who do this but also the other game. This means that in dry season, most of the animals can be found by the River, while in the wet season there’s much more game in the east of the park.

Boteti Riverbed in Makgadikgadi,  on a self-drive road trip through Botswana
Boteti River
Boteti Riverbed in Makgadikgadi, Botswana
In the riverbed

Tree Island campsite is a remote spot in the eastern section of the park with three sites, all with a long-drop toilet and bucket shower. Khumaga is the other campsite in the park, next to the Boteti River. It’s a much bigger campsite and there are shared ablutions with flush toilets and hot showers.

By the river there are several tracks nearby and you can drive up and down the banks looking for game, including many antelope and hippos. Once you’ve explored Makgadikgadi, Nxai Pans is not far away. Head north from the river to the main road and 10 km east along it.

Nxai Pan National Park

The entrance gate to Nxai is on the northern side of the main road. The route into the main area of the park is quite sandy and you may see elephants along the way. The clarity of the light is very special in Nxai, especially in the golden hours – just after sunrise and just before sunset.

Wildebeest in Nxai Pan on a self drive safari in Botswana
Wildebeest in Nxai Pan

Similarly to Makgadikgadi, there are two campsites, each with a different vibe. South Camp is on the southern edge of the main pans area of the park and has the most wildlife nearby. There are many campsites fairly close together and shared ablutions. In contrast, Baines Baobabs campsite has three sites spread out from each other, each with a drop toilet and bucket shower, in a remote section of the park by some huge baobabs. These campsites may be inaccessible in the wet season.

From the entrance gate to Nxai Pans it’s then 140 km back to Maun.

Kalahari Desert Exploration Self-Drive Route

Distance3000 – 4000 km
Days12 – 20 Days
Start/EndMaun or Gaborone
Best TimeMarch – May
VibeWilderness & Gemsbok
Gemsbok on a safari route through Botswana

This self-drive safari route explores some of the last places on earth to remain true wilderness, the three big desert parks of southern Botswana – Mabuasehube, Khutse and the Central Kalahari. With fantastic predator sightings, huge herds of antelope and a feeling of utter remoteness, you’ll want to head back as soon as you leave.

Road conditions on the Kalahari Desert Exploration

A good section of track in CKGR
A good section of track in CKGR
Sandy tracks in Mabuasehube on a self-drive safari through Botswana
Sandy tracks in Mabuasehube

The tracks in Mabuasehube and Khutse are mostly just sandy and don’t get too wet or muddy even in the rainy season. In Central Kalahari there are areas, especially near Deception Valley on the eastern edge of the main loops, where tracks can become quite muddy and wet. Some routes also tend to be slightly overgrown. Unless you’re confident you can self-recover from getting stuck in the mud or you’re travelling in a convoy, it’s best to think twice about the Central Kalahari in January or February. If you’re a confident self-driver however, it’s a great time of year to be in the region with the game flocking to the ancient riverbeds and pans, and young antelope attracting the predators.

Typical sandy tracks in much of CKGR
Typical sandy tracks in much of CKGR

The long, sandy route from Khutse to the north of CKGR is very remote and not frequently driven. If you go this way, take enough water and food to last an extra few days in case you break down. It’s 300 km from the centre of Khutse to Pipers Pan in the north, and it’s sandy undulating dunes all the way with few animals. If you want to avoid this section, you can drive the long way around (about 900 km, mainly on tar). To take this route, go back out the way you came in and around via Ghanzi. You can then follow a similar itinerary in the CKGR to that in the route above.

Suggested Itinerary for the Kalahari Desert Exploration Route

DayWhereTar/kmSand/kmCampsiteCost1
0Gaborone
1Mabuasehube325160Mabuasehube385
2Mabuasehube080Mabuasehube385
3Mabuasehube085Bosobogolo30
4Kang145125Kalahari Rest Lodge*140
5Khutse300130Maharushele Pan350
6Khutse095Moreswe350
7Khutse090Khutse Pan350
8CKGR0250/210Xade/Xaxa145
9CKGR070/135Piper Pan350
10CKGR0170Kori30
11CKGR075Sunday Pan350
12CKGR0100Passarge Valley350
13Rakops15150Rakops River Lodge*130
14Khama Rhino32025Khama Rhino120
15Gaborone15335
1Cost is in Pula, per person per night for international guests

Approximate costs for this itinerary for two people with one vehicle work out at about $1070/1300 for SADC/international excluding vehicle hire, food and small extras. The three main costs are $370/530 for campsites, $300/370 for park fees and roughly $400 for fuel. To reduce the price, stay at the DWNP campsites in Mabuasehube and CKGR.

To shorten the itinerary you could spend one less night in all the parks, miss out on Mabuasehube entirely and skip the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. If you have more time, spend an extra night in all the parks, or add on more than one extra in Central Kalahari.

Mabuasehube

From Gaborone, or South Africa, first head to Kanye. At the Mongala Mall in the centre of town you can fill up on fuel, visit the Superspar, and get a SIM card for Botswana if needed (we got a Mascom SIM and it worked well). From Kanye it’s 165 km to Sekoma, the last place for fuel before the park.

A very official road sign for a sandy track to Mabuasehube on a self drive safari in Botswana
A very official sign for a sandy track
The gate to the cutline to Mabuasehube
The gate to the cutline towards Mabuasehube

From Sekoma head 80 km down the A20 and there’s a large road sign pointing down the cutline to Mabuasehube. You have to open and close a gate to get on the track. It’s then straight for a while before the track wiggles around to the north, then cuts south back to a larger cutline. Then it’s west all the way to the boundary track of Mabua. Head south along this track – it’s probably the sandiest part of the drive, and soon you’ll reach the entrance gate.

Inside the Park

Inside the park there are several camping spots – all fairly private and spread out from each other, most with their own A-frame, long-drop toilet and bucket shower. The most popular spots are around Mabuasehube Pan itself and Mpayathutlwa Pan but many of the other sites are also nice. The worst spots are at the Entrance Gate since you don’t get a sense of wilderness.

Mabuasehube Pan whilst on a road trip self driving through Botswana
Mabuasehube Pan

After exploring the park you must return to the same entrance gate. Head north along the boundary then left at the corner before the tracks turns north again towards Hukuntsi. The track is a mix of sand which is a bit slow and newer gravel sections where you can travel fast – but these are intermittent. There’s fuel in Hukuntsi and then it’s 110 km east to Kang.

In Kang there’s both fuel and a Choppies supermarket. We stayed at the campsite at Kalahari Rest Lodge, which has a pool and delicious steak, 25 km north up the road from Kang. There aren’t (m)any other camping opportunities in this area. The other option is to drive all the way from Mabua to Khutse (630 km, about 200 km of which is sand) but it would be a very long day.

Khutse

Springbok in Khutse
Giraffe in Khutse, Botswana

From Kang head to Letlhakeng, the end of the tar and the last place to get fuel before heading north into the desert. If you’re heading right through to CKGR, you will probably travel at least 1000 km before the next fuel, mainly on sandy tracks. With an average fuel consumption of 8 km/litre, you’ll need 125 litres. You may well travel more like 1300 km, in which case at least 160 litres of fuel would be needed. If you’re pulling a trailer, your fuel efficiency will be a lot worse. Remember also to take enough water for the time you plan to spend plus a few days extra in case of problems. Assume that there’s no water within the park (there may be some at Xade Gate halfway up but it’s definitely not reliable).

A lion's footprint in the sand
Elephants in Khutse Game Reserve, a stop on a self drive safari in Botswana

From Letlhakeng the tracks are good gravel until just before the border of Khutse Park, and within the park they are mainly sandy. After camping a few nights here, head north to continue into the desert if taking the direct route. There are campsites along the route at Bape, Xaxa (12 km off the main track but by a waterhole) and Xade Gate. After a stopover, continue through the sand to Pipers Pan and beyond onto the main loop of the Central Kalahari.

If you don’t fancy the 300 km of sandy undulating sand dunes, leave Khutse the way you came and return to Kang. Continue north to Ghanzi (we stayed one night in Tautona Lodge* here). On this route, Ghanzi is the last place for fuel, food and water before you enter the park.

Central Kalahari

Gemsbok in Central Kalahari on a self-drive safari through Botswana

Wherever you enter the park, spend a couple of nights in the Deception Valley area on the eastern side of the loop, and a few nights elsewhere. While in the park read Cry of the Kalahari*, a book about the brown hyenas and lions of Deception Valley. Pipers Pan is a great spot to spend a night or two, while Passarge Valley is also beautiful and worth driving to see the large herds of antelope.

Leopard in Central Kalahari
Lion in Botswana on a self-drive safari road trip

You could spend weeks here, but eventually you must leave. Head east to exit the park and continue to Rakops. There’s fuel here but no supermarket. Camp overnight at Rakops River Lodge*, or if you left the park early you can continue to Khama Rhino Sanctuary. On the way stop at Letlhakane for both supermarkets and fuel.

Khama Rhino Sanctuary is a small reserve that contains many rhinos. The campsite is pleasant and you could pass a day or two here. From the Sanctuary it’s 335 km back to Gaborone or 600 km to Johannesburg.

Khama Rhino Sanctuary
Khama Rhino Sanctuary

Self-Driving and Camping Gear Needed in Botswana

Gear for at the Campsite

  • Braai wood – you can buy this at most supermarkets in Botswana and often at some of the biggest campsites.
  • Headlamp* – essential for walking around in the dark and keeping your hands free.
  • Flashlight* – a strong flashlight is useful for scanning around your campsite and seeing far-off wildlife in the dark. A red light disturbs the animals less. You can either get a flashlight with a red bulb or a white one with a red filter, though the latter are less powerful because they filter out some of the light.
  • Camping Lanterns* – great to set out around your vehicle at night to give some bright light. We had two. Get rechargeable ones so you can recharge them during the day using your solar panels (see below).
  • Handheld espresso maker* – if you need your coffee fix, you can make a decent espresso at the campsite with a bit of arm work. It works best with finely ground coffee, something available only in the main cities of Botswana (Maun, Kasane, Gaborone, Francistown). To be safe, bring your own finely ground coffee from home.
  • Thermos Flask* – we often made a litre of tea, half to drink immediately and half for our thermos that we took with us on our game drives. It was a great idea for the chilly mornings and kept us going throughout the day. A narrow flask is more likely to fit into your car cup holders or side pockets.
  • Travel First Aid Kit* – a basic first aid kit is very useful to have in the wild.
  • Books set in Botswana – in the middle of the day you will often have time for relaxation back at your accommodation, whether at a campsite or lounging by the pool. Reading books set in Botswana is a great way to pass the time and learn more about the country.
Camping gear needed on safari in Botswana

Gear for Charging Items

  • Solar Panels* – set these out when you’re back in camp to charge your lanterns, cameras, phones, Kindles, batteries and …
  • Power Bank* – useful to charge your cameras or phones if for some reason you can’t set out your solar panels. You can also charge this up when somewhere with real electricity or while you drive along in the car.
  • Car Charger* – depending on the age and model of your vehicle, you may need a USB converter to charge from the cigarette lighter.
  • Car Power Inverter for Laptop* – with a power inverter you can charge your laptop from the second battery system of your car, either while stopped or while driving along. We used this quite a bit.
  • Camera USB Charger* – I had a camera with a battery that charged via a real plug, so I bought a camera battery charger that worked via a USB instead. This meant I could charge via the solar panels or the car. Check carefully that the charger you get is compatible with your specific camera battery.

Is it safe to self-drive in Botswana?

Tips for Staying Safe while Self-Driving in Botswana

  • Never drive in the dark – animals may jump onto the road
  • Always check your surrounding for wild animals before leaving your vehicle
  • Accompany young children at all times and don’t let them sleep in their own tent
  • Never take citrus fruit or apples into wilderness areas – elephants love these and do anything to get at them
  • Be careful when lifting up your rooftop tent cover if you keep it on the ground overnight – scorpions or snakes could be sheltering beneath it
  • Don’t walk in the dark to the ablutions – drive or hold it in
  • Never run away from a big cat – stand your ground, wave your arms and shout at it
Animals crossing the highway, a constant danger in Botswana
Animals crossing the highway, a constant danger in Botswana

Dangers on the Road

Botswana is one of the safest countries in Africa, there is very little chance you’ll have any problems with crime within the country. Additionally there are very few other cars on the road apart from in the larger towns and cities so accidents involving two cars are rare in the countryside. The greatest danger of self-driving safari in Botswana is animals on the road and you shouldn’t drive in the dark for this reason. Always stick to the speed limit (40 km/hour in the parks) and slow down in areas with high concentrations of animals.

An additional danger is breaking down or getting stuck in the remote wilderness and not being able to self-recover. The road may be infrequently driven and much of Botswana does not have mobile reception so you must always have enough water and food for an extra few days. If you rent or own a satellite phone you’ll always be able to contact someone if you break down.

Animal Dangers While Driving in Wilderness

When you’re in your vehicle and driving slowly or at a standstill, elephants are basically the only animal that can hurt you and your car. Elephants are the leading cause of animal-related deaths in Botswana (more than hippos and mosquitoes), killing a handful of people every year. Always respect the wild animals and never get too near an elephant. They are often known as ‘gentle giants’ but experience teaches otherwise. Never get too close to elephants and back away if they start flapping their ears, raising their trunks, trumpeting or otherwise looking disturbed by your presence.

Breeding herds will fiercely protect their young and will charge you if they feel you are a threat. Males in musth (when they want to breed) have high testosterone levels and can be particularly aggressive. Signs that they’re in musth include wet cheeks (it looks a bit like they’re crying) and dribbling urine on their back legs. Luckily elephants normally give a warning charge – trumpeting and running just a few metres – before the real thing. This gives you the opportunity to quickly drive away.

An elephant crossing the road in Botswana on a self-drive safari
An elephant crossing the road

Safety at Campsites in Botswana

Wildlife-related incidents at campsites in Botswana are rare but do happen. Children especially are the main victims and should always be accompanied. Never let children sleep in their own tent in case they decide to wander outside in the middle of the night. By following normal precautions, being alert and giving respect to all wild animals you should be safe on your self-drive safari in Botswana.

Outside your vehicle at your campsite there are many animals that might be a danger, though normally they are just a nuisance. Always check your surroundings before leaving your vehicle. It’s especially dangerous to walk far from your car when it’s dark. Don’t walk to the ablutions at nighttime, go before it gets dark. It’s best to drive (if you have a rooftop tent don’t set it up until the last minute) or just hold it in.

A venomous puff adder visiting our campsite in Savuti
A venomous puff adder visiting our campsite in Savuti

Dangers from Small Animals

Monkeys and baboons are common at campsites and are normally just looking for food. They can be very cunning, using two-pronged attacks and distraction tactics, so always keep a tidy camp and never leave food out (or your boot open).

Snakes are another animal to watch out for at your campsite and these can be very dangerous. We had a puff adder slither into our campsite in Savuti – these are highly venomous (though luckily also highly slow) and it’s often very far to the nearest hospital. Normally the campsites are cleared so you can see any snakes approaching, but be particularly careful if walking through grass and undergrowth.

Mosquitoes! Take precautions against malaria in the north of the country. Scorpions can be found in the desert parks of Botswana – the sting is in the tail so those with small pincers and thick tails are the ones to watch out for the most. If you keep the cover of your rooftop tent on the ground overnight, always be careful when lifting it up the next morning. We once had a deadly scorpion sheltering under it.

Dangers from Large Animals

Hyenas can be attracted by the smell of meat and any food left out. They are also quite cunning. Normally you can scare them off by shouting at them, but they may attack young children in particular. Never sleep outside your tent and always make sure your tent is fully zipped up in the nighttime – you don’t want to wake up to a hyena eating your face.

Be especially vigilant near water. Hippos are one of the most dangerous animals. When the sun sets they come out of the water to graze – never get between them and the water. Additionally, crocodiles lurk in the shallows and can be very hidden. Always approach water with caution, and if there might be hippos nearby never ever walk about in the dark.

Obviously if you see a leopard or lion(s) approaching your campsite, immediately get into your vehicle. Lions are normally relaxed and lazy during the daytime but become much more active as darkness falls. Additionally, lions are quite self-confident, not easily scared and normally quite obvious, unlike leopards who more easily feel threatened and can hide unobtrusively in nearby trees. If you’re far from your car, never run away from a big cat. Stand your ground, make yourself look big and make a lot of noise. If you run away the cat will be more tempted to chase you.

Monkeys checking out our campsite in Chobe
Monkeys checking out our campsite in Chobe

A baboon contemplating our dinner
A baboon contemplating our dinner in Khwai

Dangers from Very Large Animals

Buffalos can also be very dangerous, but again they are unlikely to wander into your campsite. If you are walking in the wilderness, a lone male buffalo is one of the most dangerous animals you can encounter. This is partly because they are often aggressive and partly because they normally don’t give a warning charge, they just immediately go for the real thing. If you do see a buffalo charging toward you either climb a tree or if there aren’t any nearby you should lie flat on the ground. This is really the advice given, though it must be incredibly hard to follow if it came to it.

Ablutions protected from elephants
Ablutions protected from elephants

Elephants are often less of an issue at campsites than when driving around the parks. This is because they are intelligent and often recognise that campsites are the domain of humans, while the surrounding wilderness is their domain. This means they aren’t likely to wander into your campsite just to attack you. They will either stay away or gently wander through. In contrast, while driving in the parks you enter their domain and they can feel threatened by this. Elephants like citrus fruits such as oranges and apples so never bring these into any parks. Elephants have been known to trample down tents to get to these juicy fruits.

Bribery and Road Check Points in Botswana

Bribery is extremely uncommon in Botswana and the police you might meet at a checkpoint are often very friendly to tourists. However, once we were asked by the police if we had any food, so we gave them two apples and they seemed quite satisfied with this.

There are occasional checkpoints to just check traffic, but most checkpoints are at vet (veterinary) fences. These long fences criss-cross Botswana and are designed to prevent the spread of diseases such as foot-and-mouth being transmitted from the wild animals to the domestic cattle. This means certain food items are prohibited from being transported across these fences, mainly meat and eggs. These rules may seem silly but they are in place to protect the cattle industry from diseases which could ruin the entire country’s economy so they should be obeyed.

The diseases are endemic in the northeast of the country and you can bring meat and eggs into these areas (i.e. from south to north) but you can’t bring these products back in the other direction. For example, you can take meat from Maun into Moremi and beyond, but you can’t bring meat back from Moremi to Maun. You can take meat from Gaborone and the south into the Central Kalahari, but you can’t take meat from Maun into the Central Kalahari.

Lion cub in Khwai
Wouldn’t hurt a fly… but his mum would

Where to get supplies in Botswana

Food and Drink

Gaborone, Maun and Kasane are the main places in Botswana to pick up supplies for a self-drive safari. These three locations have the greatest options, all with Superspar, Choppies and Shoprite. In addition, Gaborone and Maun have Woolworths Food. Many other towns in the southeast of the country also have a selection of supermarkets.

Other useful towns with at least a Choppies and some also a Superspar are Nata, Kang, Letlhakeng, Ghanzi, Letlhakane, Francistown, Serowe & Palapye. Two towns where you might expect a supermarket but there isn’t include Rakops and Gweta.

See our Chobe National Park guide to read more about the facilities in Kasane, or find out more about Maun.

Car Mechanics in Botswana

Maun and Kasane are two useful places with several car mechanics, dealing with both Landrovers, Toyotas and others. We also visited a mechanic in Ghanzi called NSI (PTY) LTD Motor Vehicle Repairs, on the corner opposite the Superspar. See our Chobe National Park or Maun guide to find more details about mechanics in Kasane or Maun.

Fuel Stations in Botswana

The common fuel stations are Shell, Caltex, Engen and Puma. There are a reasonable number of fuel stations and we always found them to be working. Watch out for the fuel station marked in Gweta (between Maun and Nata) on many maps – this is very unreliable. It’s a good idea to keep your tank(s)/jerry cans fairly full, or at least to have enough to be able to keep going if your first choice fuel station is not open/not working.

I hope you enjoyed our guide to self-driving in Botswana. If you’re not sure about whether self-driving is for you, check out our general safari guide where you can explore luxury safari options* or other cheaper options. If you’re still keen on self-driving, read our Camping in Botswana Guide or read about our 45-day road trip through Botswana. Alternatively, check our overall Guide to Botswana.


We went on a self-drive safari in Botswana for two months in our trusty Defender. Find out more by reading the travel book I wrote, No Footprints in the Night: On Safari in Botswana*.

FAQS: Self-Drive Safari Botswana

Can you self-drive in Botswana?

Yes, self-driving is a great way to explore the national parks of Botswana.

What is a self-drive safari?

A self-drive safari involves driving yourself in a 4×4 vehicle around the national parks. Additionally, it involves camping in the parks and being self-sufficient for the duration or your trip.

Do you need a 4×4 in Botswana?

You definitely need a 4×4 to explore the national parks of Botswana yourself. If you don’t rent a 4×4 you are limited to driving on the tar, staying in lodges next to the main roads and then going on guided trips into the parks.

Is it safe to self-drive in Botswana?

Botswana is one of the safest countries in Africa, there is very little chance you’ll have any problems with crime within the country. The greatest danger of self-driving in Botswana is animals on the road and you shouldn’t drive in the dark for this reason. An additional danger is breaking down in the remote wilderness and not being able to self-recover. The road may be infrequently driven and much of Botswana does not have mobile reception so you must always have enough water and food for an extra few days.

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