Botswana vs South Africa: Which Is Better for an African Safari?
Anthony is a photographer and writer for travel magazines and Lonely Planet, including the guides to Kenya and Botswana & Namibia.
Botswana vs South Africa: Which is better for an African Safari? The only correct answer is that they’re both wonderful and each has its advantages. Botswana and South Africa are two of Africa’s premier safari destinations, but each offers a different kind of safari experience. There are numerous factors to consider when deciding which is better.
To help make choosing the best safari for you a breeze, read on for comprehensive coverage of your options.
Aerial view of the Okavango Delta, Botswana
Both South Africa and Botswana are beautiful countries, but their scenery is quite different. Botswana has two of Africa’s signature landscapes: the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari Desert. The Delta is a magical world of greens and blues, of water channels and islands that seem like custom-made habitats for a wide variety of animals; South Africa has nothing comparable. The Kalahari Desert also takes up around 70% of Botswana, with golden grasslands, sand dunes and, in the north, the world’s largest network of salt pans.
Sunlight over the Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa
The Kalahari spills over into northern South Africa, although not to the same extent as in Botswana. What Botswana doesn’t have (and which South Africa has in abundance) are mountains and coastline. Botswana’s highest point is just 1,494m/4,902ft above sea level. South Africa, on the other hand, has the dramatic and hauntingly beautiful Drakensberg Mountains. Drama also defines the stunning coastline, with the Western Cape in particular a fine backdrop for a safari.
Climate & Best Time To Visit
Both Botswana and South Africa promise excellent weather conditions for going on safari. Both have long Dry seasons. In Botswana’s case, it’s from April to October, while in most of South Africa, it’s from May to September. Cape Town marches to a different beat, and is at its best from October to April.
Game-drive vehicle on the Chobe riverfront, Botswana
Rains are possible the rest of the year in both countries. In much of South Africa, the rains may be little more than an afternoon shower. In Botswana, January and February are probably best avoided as heavy rains are possible during these months.
The question of when to visit may be entirely different if you’re a birder. Migratory birds arrive in large numbers from Europe and elsewhere in Africa in both Botswana and South Africa in November and remain until April.
Wildlife Densities – The Big Five
White rhino in Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa
If you’re wanting to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo), then South Africa is probably the best option. There are numerous parks, reserves and private conservancies where you can see all five of these iconic species on a single safari.
Parks and reserves that contain the Big Five include Madikwe Game Reserve, Pilanesberg Game Reserve and Kruger National Park, as well as Kruger’s surrounding reserves such as Sabi Sand Game Reserve and Timbavati Nature Reserve. I once saw all five species on a single afternoon’s game drive in Timbavati.
Leopard in Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana
Unlike South Africa, Botswana has very few rhinos. The only populations are a small and very elusive band of rhinos in Moremi Game Reserve and the surrounding Okavango Delta, and in Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
If you were to visit Khama Rhino Sanctuary (where rhino sightings are common), you could see the other four species elsewhere in the country. This would mean that you would see the Big Five while in Botswana, albeit not in a single place. The only reserve where the Big Five is possible in one place is Moremi, but remember that the chances of seeing rhino are quite small.
Wildlife Densities – Overall
Not every wildlife or safari expert considers the Big Five to be the best way to plan your safari. After all, the term ‘Big Five’ was actually coined by 19th- and early-20th-century hunters to describe the five most dangerous animals to hunt. It may actually be more exciting to see a cheetah or an African wild dog on your safari. As well as the more unusual antelope species, to say nothing of zebra, giraffe and other incredible animals.
Red lechwes and an elephant in the Kwando Concession, Botswana
For overall wildlife safaris, Botswana may just have the edge over South Africa (unless you include marine mammals…). Parts of the Okavango Delta and surrounding areas are among the best in Africa for seeing African wild dog, and the Delta’s array of antelopes (including sitatunga, red lechwe, sable, roan and so many more) has few rivals elsewhere. You can also see many wetland species within a half day’s drive of the Kalahari where dry-country specials such as gemsbok are commonly seen.
Yellow-billed hornbill in Kruger National Park, South Africa
The birding, however, is slightly better in South Africa (about 850 recorded species) than in Botswana (615).
Lodge in Kruger National Park, South Africa
There’s little difference between Botswana and South Africa when it comes to accommodations. South Africa has a bigger selection of places to stay across a much broader geographical spread. Botswana has world-class lodges and tented camps, often in remote locations, that offer levels of luxury to suit most visitors. And while South Africa has high-class city, coastal and wine-country choices, there’s nowhere to match the exclusive, fly-in isolation of the lodges and tented camps in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
One area where South Africa excels is in the breadth of choice for budget travelers and self-drivers, thanks to the affordable rest camps that are found throughout South Africa’s national parks.
Game drive in Kruger National Park, South Africa
There are many different factors that can influence the cost of a safari, such as the season that you travel, whether it’s a group or private safari and the type of accommodations that you choose. The price ranges below are a guide only to help you think about the type of trip you would like to book.
The average costs of a safari in South Africa per person per day are:
Note that the most luxurious places of all will set you back around US$1,500 per person per day in South Africa.
The average costs of a safari in Botswana per person per day are:
Note that the most luxurious places of all will set you back around US$2,000 per person per day in Botswana.
In the Botswana vs South Africa competition, you’ll have similar choices at the top end of the safari market. Both countries have world-class safari accommodations and operators, and if money is no object, either country would be a fantastic choice.
If you’re looking for a mid-range or budget safari, there is little doubt that South Africa has considerably more choice. While this is partly to do with the sheer scale of South Africa and its safari industry, it’s also because Botswana long ago decided to prioritize a high-end, low-density model of safari tourism. Mid-range and budget safaris are possible in Botswana, but options are limited, and in some cases may be restricted to a self-drive safari.
Guests arriving in the Okavango Delta by small aircraft, Botswana
Johannesburg is the major airline hub for southern Africa, and many airlines from around the world fly into the city. This makes South Africa highly accessible for safari travelers. If you’re traveling throughout the country by road from Johannesburg, then South Africa has to win the prize as the more accessible of the two. After all, there are very few direct flights into Botswana from anywhere except South Africa and perhaps one or two other neighboring countries.
That said, it costs little more, and takes no longer, to fly from Johannesburg to Maun than it does from Johannesburg to Cape Town or many other South African cities.
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